Review: The Dread of Waiting in ‘La Llorona’

Jayro Bustamante’s psychological thriller about the evils of colonialism is not to be confused with the other 2019 film about the curse of the weeping woman. No, this is not The Curse of La Llorona from the Conjuring-verse; this Guatemalan film twists the legend of the mother who drowns her own children and then wanders the earth weeping forever in repentance. Replacing the murderous matriarch, Bustamante’s film casts genocidal regimes in the role of the villain, drawing on Guatemala’s recent history for a slow-burning, dread-inducing tale. 

The film opens as former leader General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) prepares to go to trial for accusations of genocide against Guatemala’s Indigenous people, the Mayan Ixils, two decades earlier. The General appears to be based on the real-life late dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, who committed similar war crimes. As in real life, the General of the film is acquitted by mistrial.  Weighted with real-life atrocities from Guatemala’s past, the film is heavy with questions of what it takes to ensure justice is served, and who can serve it. This General is, perhaps, beginning to lose his mind as he starts to hear a mysterious sobbing in the night.

When the General starts roaming the house with a gun, convinced there’s a weeping woman hiding somewhere, the household servants – all Mayan Ixils – resign, bar one. Left is Valeriana (María Telón), still present after over twenty years, who desperately searches for new staff. The only applicant is a beautiful young woman, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), whose taciturn presence becomes a lightning rod for the Monteverde family’s various prejudices and anxieties about Mayan women. Meanwhile, the trial’s outcome sparks a huge protest, and crowds of angry, grief-stricken Guatemalans gather around the General’s house with posters of loved ones who ‘disappeared’ under his regime. 

The General’s family, plus Valeriana, Alma and loyal bodyguard Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), are thus trapped together inside the house, where tensions simmer as the General’s behaviour becomes more unstable. Alongside hearing the weeping, he has visions of Alma swimming in the pool and flooding the bathroom, only to be interrupted by his increasingly frustrated family. Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), the General’s adult daughter, knows what her father did as leader, but is unable to accept it, and is uneasy when her own adolescent daughter Sara spends time with Alma; Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), his wife, is dignified and steely, and wilfully ignorant of her husband’s crimes, but begins to have nightmares and suffer physical ailments. 

How complicit are the wives and children of war criminals? La Llorona doesn’t offer easy answers, refusing to place Carmen and Natalia as either Lady Macbeth-types or innocent victims under patriarchy. When Natalia asks her father how he met Valeriana – who was brought to the house from a military base as a child – he impatiently says, “You know.” But the actual extent of Natalia’s knowledge is ambiguous. This is a film where the truth is constantly contested, from the General’s lawyer’s denial of the country’s atrocities in the courtroom (“In Guatemala, there was no genocide”), to the General’s defence of his erratic night-time behaviour, insisting he’s always sleepwalked despite contention from his daughter. 

Regardless of the depth of their knowledge of the General’s crimes, Bustamante is clear that Carmen and Natalia’s ignorance is not harmless, but actively perpetuates racism. Carmen channels her feelings of helplessness into rhetoric against Mayan women, calmly stating that the women at the trial recounting rape and brutality were “whores, paid to lie.” Even when Carmen starts turning against her husband, she insists Alma is the cause of his unravelling, and blames her for being the object of her husband’s predatory lust. Natalia, although more willing to believe her father committed atrocities, still treats the Mayan servants as inferior, pompously telling them, “They spoil you … they even buy you tortillas!” When Sara tells Natalia that Alma has two children, she remarks,  in a tone of anthropological wonder, “The Indigenous people have many children so fast.” Bustamante takes jabs at the hypocrisies of colonialist mentality, as Carmen, inside her mansion built on the suffering of the Mayan Ixils, stares at the protestors and bemoans, “It’s an invasion. Will they ever leave us alone?” 

La Llorona is a horror movie in some sense, hinging terror on the question of the General’s sanity, or whether or not Alma is a vengeful spirit out to get him and his family. The film’s supernatural elements may guide it toward the genre, but the actions of the General and his army – and the ways his family benefit from them – are far more the harbinger of horror. A scene in the courtroom, where a Mayan woman recounts her experience of rape, is leaden with the same dread as the scenes of the General wandering the house in the dark. Bustamante eschews jump scares for slowness, zooming gradually out from the witness’ face until you see the courtroom crowd behind her, or slowly moving in on Carmen and Natalia arguing about the trial in an empty room. But this creeping slowness is suited to a film about an indeterminate waiting – the Guatemalans waiting decades for justice, the family waiting to be ‘left alone’ by the protestors. As Bustamante’s chilling film reflects, being haunted is not a fleeting experience, but a long, enduring affair.

La Llorona screens as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.

View the MIFF site for more info.

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Zoë Almeida Goodall is a film critic, editor and researcher based in Melbourne.

Zoë Almeida Goodall